There are times when Mike Phillips states frankly that he is the best scrum-half in the sport, and times when he reins back a little and merely suggests that he might be in the top one. Arrogance? The farmer’s son from Bancyfelin would prefer to call it self-confidence. Either way, he is not obviously of a mind to loosen his grip on the treasured Lions jersey over the next few weeks of sporting combat in the Antipodes.
If any player has a God-given right to a superiority complex, it is a Welsh No 9 in Lions year. For all the tales and fables of an outside-half factory buried deep in a hidden valley somewhere to the west of Cardiff, the real dominance has been exerted one position closer to the scrum. Since Dickie Jeeps, the most decorated English Lion of them all, ended his three-tour career in 1962, men from the far side of the Severn have had it pretty much their own way.
Allan Lewis of Abertillery played three of the four Tests against the All Blacks in 1966; the great Gareth Edwards made the position his own between 1968 and 1974; Brynmor Williams was first choice in New Zealand in 1977; then came Terry Holmes, Robert Jones, Rob Howley and Dwayne Peel, followed in South Africa four years ago by the ox-like incumbent. The only time in half a century that the Welsh have been beaten fair and square in the race for the scrum-half berth was in Kiwi country in 1993, when Dewi Morris of England was first pick. And he was born in Crickhowell.
Phillips was one of the central characters in the great 2009 series against the Springboks, taking the fight to his opponents in whatever manner he felt appropriate. On the field, he happily squared up to such mercilessly aggressive South African flankers as Juan Smith and Schalk Burger, scoring a try in the first Test in Durban and trading punches in the third in Johannesburg. Off it, he said what he thought, loudly and with meaning. After Burger had gone for the eyes of the Irish wing Luke Fitzgerald in the opening seconds of the compellingly brutal second Test in Pretoria, he said: “That’s not sport and it’s not the way we play. It was disgusting.”
Since then, some of Phillips’ own behaviour has been on the ripe side: Warren Gatland, his coach on this tour, banned him from a training camp ahead of the 2011 World Cup after some late-night nonsense in the Welsh capital, and he was subsequently suspended by Bayonne, the French Top 14 club he joined a couple of years ago, for conduct deemed “unacceptable” by the management.
Yet that move across the Channel has been the making of him, if his exceptional form at the back end of this season’s Six Nations was anything to go by. And wouldn’t you just know it, he comes face to face with his deadly local rival, the masterly Dimitri Yachvili of neighbouring Biarritz, in today’s opening tour match against the Barbarians at the Hong Kong Stadium.
“We speak the same language, Dimitri and me, living side by side in the Basque country,” he said, in mischievous tones, after being named in the starting line-up for this high-temperature, profoundly sweaty contest with the second most famous cross-border team in world rugby. “Actually, he’s a great player and it will be good to play against him in a situation completely different to the usual one. He’s highly thought of throughout the game and rightly so. It’s a nice match-up.
“Bayonne and Biarritz have a huge rivalry and the derbies are pretty special. The atmosphere is incredible. You even have the players’ parents running on the field and fighting. I remember the father of Imanol Harinordoquy (the high-calibre international No 8 from Biarritz) coming onto the pitch, swinging. That was an experience.
“Rugby there is different: a bit more forward-based, with more kicking. They expect me to be a leader and that’s fine – I’m happy with it, although sometimes I think they expect me to win every match on my own, and see it as my fault when we lose. I can’t quite put my finger on what all this has done for my game, but it must have benefited me somehow: since I’ve been based there, I’ve won two Six Nations titles and a Grand Slam with Wales.”
Any recent changes in Phillips’ approach to the scrum-half’s art are barely visible to the naked eye: he is still resolutely Holmes-like – hard, direct, unremittingly physical – in his running game, just as he was when he first broke into the Scarlets side after spending his teenage years at the Whitland and Carmarthen clubs, originally as a loose forward. Looking back, Sir Clive Woodward might have picked him for the Lions tour of New Zealand in 2005. Phillips had already been capped by Wales and might have made a real name for himself mixing it with the likes of Jerry Collins and Richie McCaw in the deepest of All Black midwinters.
Instead, he had to wait for the hard grounds and harsh sunlight of South Africa in ’09. How he prospered. “The Lions is the ultimate, isn’t it?” he said. “Fortunately, I was able to play some of my best stuff on that trip. You’re surrounded by great players, you understand the scale of the occasion and you don’t want to let anyone down. That in itself helps bring out the best in people, I think. I was pretty pleased with my performances.
“But I have to go one step further now and top those performances if I want to be part of a winning Lions team. We lost that series against the Boks: the tour was a success in many ways, but it was gutting to finish on the wrong side of such tiny margins and come up short. It’s important that we don’t make the same mistakes in Australia. At least we finished on a high note last time by beating the South Africans in the final Test at Ellis Park. In a way, it’s down to those of us who were involved to carry on from there.”
On balance, the scrum-half resources in this squad are richer than those of four years ago. Phillips had little difficulty seeing off Harry Ellis and Mike Blair in the race for the Test berth against the Boks, but is likely to be pushed harder by his fellow contenders this time: Conor Murray of Ireland, a gung-ho type cut from similar cloth, and the more rounded, multi-faceted Ben Youngs of England.
“There’s a big Welsh influence in the coaching group here – I know Warren and Rob Howley and Neil Jenkins very well, and they know me,” Phillips said. “We have a good relationship, so I’m very lucky in that sense. I’m also lucky that I have a chance to show what I can do in the first match of the tour. It’s pretty exciting stuff when you get to this point: ever since the squad was announced, the players have been waiting to get going. For me, the waiting ends now.
“So it’s down to me to take the opportunities when they’re offered, because all three of us will have our chances as we build towards the Test series and we all want the jersey. You have to show how much you want it, how much it means to you. I hope I can do that against the Baa-Baas.”
The early assumption is that Gatland, tempted to stick with what he knows in the key decision-making areas, sees Phillips as his go-to man at No 9. The thinking is that if the Welshman is anything like up to speed, he will be launched at the Wallaby defence in the first Test in Brisbane in the hope of causing some immediate carnage. Youngs could alter the thinking, but as things stand, he is second in the pecking order.
If this is the way things come to pass, Phillips will be the first scrum-half since Edwards to retain the shirt from one tour to the next. And as Edwards was the greatest of them all, that would be quite something.
Half-back heroes: Lions’ best no 9s
Dickie Jeeps (1955-62)
The Northampton stalwart travelled to South Africa in 1955 as third choice but made the No 9 shirt his own to achieve the distinction of being capped by the Lions before making his England debut. Jeeps remained in possession of the shirt for the trip to New Zealand four years later – where he was christened “the India Rubber man” by the All Blacks – and in Australia in 1963 to rack up a total of 13 Test appearances, still a record for an Englishman and only bettered by Ireland lock Willie-John McBride.
Gareth Edwards (1968-1974)
Widely acknowledged as the greatest scrum-half to have lived, Edwards was only 21 when he made his Lions debut in South Africa in 1968 but was ruled out of the deciding third Test with a hamstring injury. He more than made up for it three years later in New Zealand as his brilliant blindside break created a try for Gerald Williams in the decisive third Test. Edwards returned to South Africa in 1974 and was imperious as the Lions cantered to another 3-0 series win.
Matt Dawson (1997-2005)
Parachuted in to start the first Test against South Africa in 1997 after Rob Howley’s shoulder injury, Dawson took his opportunity to score the first try in Cape Town and then provided the pass for Jerry Guscott’s winning drop-goal in the second Test.
He was back to warming the bench four years later in Australia before replacing Howley for the last Test. With the Welshman retired by 2005, Dawson made the No 9 shirt his own in New Zealand but was unable to stop the 3-0 whitewash to a ferocious All Blacks side.Reuse content